6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate). I don’t generally participate in memes (they always feel like “filler” content to me), but I do like this one because it lets me explore my archive and share reviews of books that have been hidden away for a long time.

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton (1911)

I read this one back in the day I worked in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore (1990-94), then the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere (or so we were told at the time), hence there’s no review on this blog. It was around the time the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out (all the staff went to a preview screening so that we could then push sales of the book). I read the book and enjoyed it so much I thought I would try something else by Edith Wharton and so that’s how I came to read Ethan Frome, which I loved. It’s a heartbreaking read about a man with a limp and how he came to acquire it under bittersweet circumstances.

‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator, Philip Carey, has a limp because he was born with a club foot. The story charts his life from the age of 9 when his mother dies and he is sent away to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a vicarage in the countryside. This, too, is another heartbreaking read, because Philip spends so much of his adult life struggling to just get by despite being sensitive and intelligent. I adored this book and found it so affecting I never wrote a review of it, but the thing that stuck in my head so much was how brutal life was for those in poverty when there was no welfare state to offer assistance of any kind.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarenmbga (2021)

A story about a woman fallen on hard times, this is another deeply affecting read that shows what happens when someone falls into poverty but is unable to rise above it despite having a university education and a lot of potential. I read this one last year and still occasionally think about it. There are two more novels in the trilogy which I plan on reading at some point…

Soviet Milk

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)

Another story about thwarted potential, this novella is set in Latvia when it is under Soviet rule. It shows the impact of an oppressive political regime on an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and their intellectual freedom. The story also looks at the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux (1988)

Damaged mother-daughter bonds are explored in this brutally honest memoir, which became a bestseller in France upon publication in 1988.  Ernaux not only examines the fraught relationship she had with her mother, but she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney (2019)

This collection of 12 essays explore the ways in which an entire family can be impacted when a loved one has Alzheimer’s — in this case, it was the author’s paternal grandfather. There are common themes throughout the essays — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Constellations book cover

‘Constellations’ by Sinéad Gleeson (2019)

This is another essay collection revolving around a personal response to illness. It includes highly personal accounts of issues and events the author has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors. It’s a hugely readable collection themed around the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a tragic accident that leaves a man with a lifelong disability to an essay collection about illness, via stories about poverty, thwarted potential and Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.


‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.


‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.


‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.


‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Murmur’ to ‘Academy Street’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which can only mean one thing: it’s Six Degrees of Separation time!

You can find out more about this meme via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point from which to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves (2018)

I haven’t read Murmur — about the inner life of Alan Turing which won the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize last month. This book was also joint winner of the (lesser known) 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which is for the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than five full-time employees. Another book on the longlist for that prize was…

Soviet Milk

1. ‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)
This powerful novella, translated from Latvian, explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule. It is a highly emotional read (I cried at the end) very much focused on a strained mother-daughter relationship, which is also the focus of…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

2. ‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This is the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. Another story about a woman accused of murder is…

3. ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent (2013)
This is a fictionalised account of the life and crimes of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes had been convicted for her role in the murder of two men in 1828 but had no recourse to a fair trial. Her tale is a tragic one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is also what happens to the protagonist in…

4. Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood (1997)
Did she do it or didn’t she do it? This is the question that plagues the reader throughout this extraordinary novel based on a true crime in which teenage maid Grace Marks was accused of murdering her employer and his mistress in 19th century Canada. Found guilty, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. A doctor working in the burgeoning field of psychiatry tries to secure her a pardon, but you are never quite sure of his real motives. Another novel starring a psychiatrist is…

5. ‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath (2009)
In this story we meet a psychiatrist coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage seven years earlier. He treats patients who have gone through traumatic events but seems largely unable to confront his own demons, including a problematic relationship with his own (alcoholic) mother. The story is set in Manhattan, which is also the setting for…

6. Academy Street’ by Mary Costello(2014)
This is a profoundly moving story about one woman’s quiet, unassuming life from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement (as nurse) in New York more than half a century later. I read this one when it first came out in paperback and it was my favourite read of that year, helped partly by the beautiful pared back language but also the 1950s Manhattan setting. It remains one of the most emotionally potent stories I’ve ever read — of loneliness, of literature, of never quite fitting in. I wish she’d hurry up and write another novel!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning novel about a British cryptanalyst to a story about a woman’s life lead quietly in 1950s Manhattan. Have you read any of these books? 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Nora Ikstena, Peirene Press, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena

Soviet Milk

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 190 pages; 2018. Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

I read it on a long train journey and finished it feeling as if my heart would break, for the story within its 190 pages is so unbearably sad. Not only does it show how an oppressive political regime thwarts an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and stifles their intellectual freedom, it also shows the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

Life in Latvia

Set over a 25-year period, the story is told in the first person in alternate unnamed chapters by the nameless mother, born in 1944, and her nameless daughter, born in 1969. (There is also a nameless grandmother, who plays a key role, but we never hear her side of the tale.)

The setting is Latvia, which is under Soviet rule.

From the very beginning the daughter has an unusual relationship with her mother, a young doctor who disappears for five days after giving birth. When she returns she refuses to breastfeed her child — a metaphor for sustenance and deprivation that keeps recurring throughout the story — because she feels she’s been poisoned by the State and doesn’t want to pass the poison on.

Ironically, the mother, who lacks maternal tendencies and has abdicated her parental responsibilities, letting her own mother raise her child, works in a maternity ward, where she delivers newborns. Later, through her ground-breaking but secretive scientific endeavours, she impregnates an infertile woman using what we now know to be IVF techniques and delivers her a healthy and much wanted baby.

But despite her steely will and gritty determination to succeed as a doctor, the mother’s intellectual pursuits are constantly thwarted by the State which dictates where she can study and what she can practise. Then, when she commits a hideous crime,  she is exiled to the countryside and it is here that she sinks into a deep and unshakeable depression that overshadows her fragile relationship with her daughter, the daughter who realises very early on that “the role of mother was to become mine”.

Yearning for freedom

Written in lovely, pared back language, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, Soviet Milk is very much a story about isolation and yearning for freedom, but it’s also filled with delicate moments, finding joy in simple endeavours, noting the passing of seasons and the beauty of nature, how these small things can help create a desire for life.

It works on an emotional level because it builds up, scene by scene, two sides of the same coin: a daughter, constantly seeking the good and optimistic in life; and a mother, forever caught up in a dark web of unhappiness, lost opportunities and unrealised dreams. In the life they build together it is hard not to see that while they are both trapped in a “cage” imposed by the State, they are living in emotional cages they have imposed on themselves, unable to move forward or to see a way out.

This quietly devastating book will be published in the UK next month. It has already been a bestseller in Latvia, where it was first published in 2015. (I obtained my copy early because I have an annual Peirene subscription and subscribers receive their books up to eight weeks before they are available in bookshops.)